The archaeology site of Göbekli Tepe sits at the top of a mountain ridge in Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Region, and for nearly 20 years an excavation team has been coaxing secrets out of its soil, where relics dating back to the New Stone Age continue to reveal themselves.
This historical treasure hunt is led by a German archaeologist named Klaus Schmidt, but all of the diggers are local. Many of them hail from the nearby town of Urfa, where Arabs, Kurds and native Turks live alongside each other in peace. Next to the site sits a conservation laboratory, where vestiges pulled from the ground are washed, tagged, and sorted by a team made up exclusively of local women.
The work at Göbekli Tepe has become a model of sorts for conservation work across the globe – a successful synthesis of foreign brainpower and local elbow grease, a collaboration of concerned expats and eager ground-level citizens that is preserving historical gems while also contributing to the local economy. And the Global Heritage Fund, a Palo Alto, California-based nonprofit committed to protecting endangered cultural sites all over the world, hopes to apply the Göbekli Tepe model to other prized historical sites across the Middle East.
The GHF, which was founded 10 years ago by Silicon Valley executive Jeff Morgan, has created a worldwide web of intellectuals and academics, conservationists and contractors, working in sites from Cambodia to China, in order to preserve cultural riches in nations experiencing turmoil and keep them around for future generations.
Göbekli Tepe, where they have worked hand in hand with Schmidt and his team, is considered one of their chief successes. And today, as the embers that fanned the once-dubbed Arab Spring continue to evolve into full-fledged flames, the GHF’s focus is increasingly shifting toward the Middle East, where centuries-old historical treasures lie in peril in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and beyond.
“It’s so crucial that we work with locals on the ground and connect with them in preservation,” says Elinor Betesh, GHF’s Israeli-born public relations manager who now lives in Milan. “It’s a pride of place. It’s their identity. Their language, music, art, and tradition. These sites are part of their history.”
Indeed, the GHF team, which numbers around 20 and has offices in both the US and the UK, insists that the destruction of cultural heritage sites is not a separate tragedy from the destruction of human life, but part and parcel alongside it. “History starts and ends with memory,” writes Emma Cunliffe, a GHF 2010 Fellow and a PhD researcher in the department of archaeology at England’s Durham University. “The past is carried in the shared memory of the present. One cannot exist without the other.”
The Great Mosque of Aleppo’s minaret was reduced to rubble. After the shelling stopped locals made their way inside, hung curtains to hide themselves from the fighting that continued to rage outside, and began painstaking reconstruction work
Cunliffe is helping to lead GHF’s efforts to wrest the historical treasures of Syria from the destructive hands of its increasingly bloody revolution. In Assad’s splintered state, GHF says that no fewer than six UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Aleppo, Damascus, Palmyra, Crak des Chevaliers, Bosra, and the ancient villages of North Syria – have been shelled, burned and looted, and without intervention they all stand a serious risk of being reduced to ruins.
Working with the Syrian Antiquities Authority and another NGO called Heritage for Peace, Cunliffe tries to track the damage, raise awareness, and offer resources to the embedded locals on the ground who are struggling to protect these sites, often under heavy fire.
Success is slow, and hindered both by a dearth of resources and the continuing swell of violence. One small triumph, Cunliffe says, is a GPS database that Durham University is compiling with the Syrian Antiquities Authority. It is comprised of more than 1,300 sites and has taken months. When finished, she says, it will allow them to accurately pinpoint dozens of historical sites and keep better watch on them from afar.
Time, Cunliffe says, is of the essence. “We’re talking about the destruction of a culture that is one of the oldest civilizations on earth, and would have a huge impact not only on the Syrian people – whose heritage this is – but on every culture that went on to influence Western civilization. There are really monumental things here that started in this area and went on to influence the world. And it will all be gone.”
Many locals, GHF says, are risking their own lives to try and stand between the bullets and the buildings, and need help and better coordination. Cunliffe tells the story of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, whose minaret was reduced to rubble in April. After the shelling stopped, she says, locals made their way inside, hung curtains to hide themselves from the fighting that continued to rage outside, and began painstaking reconstruction work.
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in human history, with the patch marks of nearly 7,000 years of successive civilization in its stones. The gatehouse of its 13th-century citadel was damaged by shelling; part of its medieval covered market burned to the ground; and in addition to the damage to the great Umayyad mosque, its historic Old City has also taken heavy shelling.
Damascus hasn’t fared any better, with the 5,000-year-old city taking a battering to its mosques and holy shrines, its ancient buildings gutted by fire, and fighting even raging inside the house of Ananias, where Paul of the Christian New Testament is said to have stayed after his conversion.
In the desert trade city of Palmyra, the Persian and Greco-Roman buildings are pockmarked from gunfire and its temples and tombs have been looted. Crak des Chevaliers, a Crusade-era fortification with splendid Western and Arab influences, was never once taken by battle in its 1,000-year history, but today, shell impact can be seen on its walls and ancient mosque, and looters have made their way inside. Shelling has also come to the ancient city of Bosra, once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia; and in the forty “forgotten” cities known as the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, the most famous monument, the Basilica of St. Simeon’s, has been battered and its nearby buildings torn apart.
While fighting continues in Syria, GHF’s work is tenuous at best, and while the organization says they steer clear of politics and never take sides in local struggles, another key priority in their work is keeping people from taking their fighting into historical sites, where damage can be irrevocable.
GHF’s Middle East concerns reach beyond Syria. Their eyes are also on Iraq — where the ancient cities of Babylon and Nineveh are at risk of vanishing — as well as in Libya, Afghanistan, and the outskirts of Petra. In Yemen and Iran, they say, information is harder to come by, and it’s more difficult to coordinate with local authorities, but they say they’re trying.
The work is crucial, says a Libyan-born, London-based professor who has been making regular trips back to his ancestral homeland to meet with government officials and start to set up conservation infrastructure. Because of the sensitivity of his work, he asked that his name not be used.
“Libya managed to preserve its heritage for centuries, but now it’s starting to be a problem, and after the conflict the situation is unstable,” he says. “People are looting their own sites. Some people are trying very hard to protect them, and Libyans are doing what they can. But if it’s not remedied now, it will be a major problem later on.”